The RPG Scrollbars: Breaking The Superhero Curse

In this era of a hundred comic book movies a year plus spin-off shows, it’s getting harder and harder to remember that not so long ago trying to take a superhero off the printed page and onto some kind of screen was basically a recipe for failure, mockery, and a way of flying a promising creative career into a great big rock. Hell, even now most superheroes without the word ‘Bat’ in their name are still waiting for someone to even attempt a game, never mind make a good one. For every Batman on NES or Arkham Asylum, there’s an Aquaman or Superman on Nintendo 64.

On PC, it’s always been particularly weird. Especially when you look at which companies have tried and failed over the years to bring us the ultimate superhero RPG. Is there anything out there that comes close? Ignoring Freedom Force, since that’s not an RPG? Well, some! Enough not to have to hold out for a hero, at least.

The turning point of course was City of Heroes (RIP), a game that I’m still incredibly fond of even years after its shutdown. It had its problems, not least the boring randomly-generated levels, but it understood both its genre and the appeal of it and created an MMO like no other at the time. The basic concept of being awesome from Level 1 was anathema to the genre at that point, with City of Heroes allowing you to leap buildings with a single bound, pick your power-set from a range of immediately impressive super abilities, and most importantly, provide a degree of contrast so that you still felt special in a world of special people. The whole world was full of civilian NPCs whose whole job was to go “Wow, you’re awesome!”, both generically, and calling back to specific missions that you’d been on. Having the game remember your last great battle against Dr. Vahzilok or whoever really helped hold the action together.

I won’t say I played City of Heroes constantly. I don’t think it was the kind of game most people did, even with its better than usual update schedule. I always liked knowing it was there though – that at any time I could dip in, beat up some evildoers, and just feel great. I was deeply sad when it shut down, and sadder still that its official follow-up Champions Online (originally intended to be Marvel Universe Online, before Marvel bailed) didn’t pick up the baton very well. I liked it for a month or so back at launch, and some of what it brought to the table – Foxbat, the Nemesis system where you created your own foe who would sometimes appear in the overworld for a rematch, some of the level design, and the far more flexible powers. It never quite had the same raw charm of being the protector of a specific city though, and its conversion to Free To Play wasn’t exactly in its favour. It’s still running, but a glance at its main page shows development is pretty flat. Lots of sales. Not much news.

This isn’t the first attempt at bringing Champions to the screen though. Back in 1990, Hero Games formed a software company to create a game version. It would have customisable costumes! Episodic stories! Random encounters! Secret identities! A release date in 1992! Unfortunately, it proved too much for a team that had never made a game before, which isn’t too surprising given that far more experienced teams fell before this spandex-clad dream. Several of them.

Bullfrog for instance spent forever talking about a game called The Indestructibles, albeit without actually saying much. This was the same era as Creation, the underwater submarine game that never seemed to get much further than ‘Magic Carpet with a blue filter over the top’, despite endless diaries in PC Gamer. Indestructibles (originally MIST – My Incredible Superhero Team) was going to be an open-world action game full of collapsing buildings and throwing cars at things, and generally doing destruction that was far beyond what the technology of the time was probably capable of. Later in the 90s, Microprose attempted to throw its hat in the ring with Guardians: Agents Of Justice, which was planned to be X-Com with superheroes. Years later, Infogrames tried a slower, more Diablo styled take with Hero-X, which actually did come out, but nobody noticed because it was bloody awful. Fatman got more hype.

Really, until Freedom Force, the genre felt like a dead-end. If they were official licenses, they were usually shovelware. If they came out, they were probably out of left-field, like the dreadful Quake total conversion X-Men: Ravages Of Apocalypse, or shareware. Heroes: The Tantalizing Trio, anyone? It says a lot for the era that one of the most fondly remembered – and luckily for us, an RPG hybrid! – was the comedy game Superhero League Of Hoboken, a The Tick-style affair where heroes with names like The Crimson Tape and Tropical Oil Man (he fights villains with cholesterol!) fight to save their post-apocalyptic city from the evil Dr. Entropy. It was a fun game. Pretty silly, and the fighting got old fast, but it filled the gap pretty well.

In any event, I was in the mood for some pummelling for justice over the weekend, so I decided to redownload DC Universe Online on a whim. I played it back at release, enjoyed it for a month, and then largely forgot about. It didn’t have great luck after that point, going free-to-play at a time when that felt like a defeat instead of the inevitable, and being bounced from Sony to third-party operator ProSiebenSat.1 and back again, but it’s been clicking along pretty nicely over the last couple of years. There’s now 24 episodes continuing on from the end of the base-game, heading out from its initial locations in Gotham (street crime, drug-dealing, etc) and Metropolis (robots, aliens, and the like) to places like Central City and Themyscira, and just about every DC hero and villain you could name showing up for at least a quick cameo, if not actual missions.

If you’ve not played it, I’d say it’s worth a try. It looks a bit plasticky but I’ll take that over the Murderverse of the recent films. The main levelling curve doesn’t bite too much, though the spectre of the cash shop hangs about as heavy as any game that went F2P at this point. There’s a lot of random grinding around and not many players to be seen, unless I’ve just been super unlucky there, but it goes out of its way to make you feel badass whether you’re playing alone or not. Every few missions throws you up against a big-name hero or villain, often with your own side lending support, with group content joined by solo missions and duo missions (for two, in case it wasn’t obvious). Also of interest is that just a couple of days ago the co-founder of Cryptic/co-creator of City of Heroes moved to Daybreak Austin – the DC Universe Online studio. How much that will bleed into the game remains to be seen of course.

For now though, it’s fun to play, though far more limited in terms of character creation than City of Heroes. It doesn’t help that almost all of its costume pieces are locked away in game, making it so much harder to create someone original looking, while committing you to a name with just those pieces. I’d like an ‘alter-ego’ type option that would let you go from being Robin to Nightwing at the appropriate part of your career, or at least something. Being able to share names wouldn’t hurt too, since it turns out that there aren’t that many cool names for heroes and they’re all taken.

Still, my only major problem with it as a raw game is that for all the effort it spends on being approachable – sleek missions, controller support, fast combat (which isn’t as big a deal now as it was, but it still holds up okay), easy traversal with your choice of skill and so on, it’s opaque even by MMO standards about what skills you should be pushing and how it defines the various powers and heroes you can base your style on. While everything also does damage, Fire for instance is classed as a tank power. Electricity? Healing. That’s at least mentioned in the character select screen, but there’s no way of previewing the skill trees or getting a practical idea of what you’ll be able to do with them. Citizens, bow before Vagueman – the man of steel and uncertainty!

There’s some twelve power sets plus weapons, plus Iconic Powers to juggle around. Just picking stuff you think will be cool or match your costume… suffice it to say, not a great tactical idea. I’d also still prefer more solo player content for the simple reason that many heroes choose to work alone, but… well, MMO.

But, does it do its job? I’d say so. It shows its age about as much as City of Heroes did by the end, despite being a far more modern game, but it’s still the best bet for either creating your own superhero, or entering a familiar world. After dropping its deal with Cryptic, Marvel went the other way – Marvel Heroes 2016 is an ARPG where you pick characters from a huge roster and take part in stories inspired by the movies. That’s cool, and as I said last week, I’m okay with that as an approach these days. With superhero stuff though, there’s still something to be said from being in full control. At the very least, if you’re going to look ridiculous in spandex and spikey metal things, it should at least be in a costume you can be proud of. As a game? It seems fine. I’ve not put much time into it, but it feels like a decent attempt to capture the mood of the films in a wider universe, even if that does mean oddities like Maria Hill telling Black Widow that she’s equally equipped to take on Ultron in a fist-fight as the Hulk. I’m pretty sure even the biggest Black Widow fan in the world would call BS on that.

With both of these official games around, not to mention the Arkham series, with the exception of the bits of Arkham Knight spent parking Batman’s car, I think we can call the superhero curse officially broken. It would have been nice if it had been done in the 90s, but at least now both DC and Marvel fans have a satisfying way of playing in their favourite worlds, and there’s even a few indie options worth checking out. Looking for something a little more grounded? I’d say The Secret World is as much a superhero game as anything else, and especially worth checking out now that it’s been rebalanced for smoother levelling and less reliance on those pesky other players.

I still miss City of Heroes though. You never forget your first rooftop.


  1. malkav11 says:

    I still wish the RPS regulars would give Marvel Heroes a(nother) look. The game was pretty rubbish at the time John popped in for impressions, without question, but they’ve done incredible amounts to improve it since then and for a couple years now it’s been my favorite ARPG, full stop. I’ve sunk more hours into it than pretty much any other game I’ve played outside of WoW, and WoW only has the edge because I’ve been playing it for 12 years now, instead of maybe 3.

    • Inu says:

      Marvel Heroes is a halfway-decent game. However veterans find the game severely lacking later on. Maxing gear has very little incentive in the game.

      Gazillion has made sure the game is more about buying costumes and appealing to Marvel fans than actually creating a source of entertainment that is about actual gameplay.

      Not to mention the tons of archaic systems that still exist in the game. From absolutely crap UI, tons of old game modes that have no point.

      A loot pinata system that essentially turns the game into Inventory Simulator 2016, since you will be spending more time in your inventory than actually playing.

      It’ll hold your attention for a couple of months, but after you hit that moment you realize “why am i getting gear, there is no content that there is challenging for max’d gear, and damn this game is not put together very well”.

      • malkav11 says:

        I heartily disagree with much of your post, but I will grant that it’s not a game that’s well suited to the min-maxy challenge-oriented gear grind mentality that some other ARPGs welcome wholeheartedly. I think those people would likely do better with something like Path of Exile. Perhaps coincidentally, I find that kind of stuff intensely dull and when the game devolves into that sort of play, I’m done with it. Marvel Heroes has never done that to me, and I’m still playing hundreds of hours (and multiple years) later as a result. The constantly expanding roster and suite of different gameplay modes, not to mention the regular refinements and overhauls of things that are aging out of relevance, keep it continually entertaining for me.

        And I haven’t even gotten into raids (which, to be fair, seem largely impossible to PUG – not necessarily because of competency but nobody just queues for them and the old chat channel recruitment approach is archaic and terrible and almost useless), which are meant to be the challenging content along with cosmic patrols (which fried me real fast last time I tried one). Ultimately I find challenge in an ARPG pretty tedious, though. It always seems to boil down to just throwing way too much damage at you to heal through and/or one shotting you with stuff you couldn’t dodge quick enough (if at all).

  2. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    My friend convinced me to buy City of Heroes. We went to Wal-Mart and found that the rack was empty. Just as we were about to leave, I glanced down and saw the very last copy fallen behind the shelf, out of sight. I spent more time creating my heroes than actually playing, and I had a solid month of fun before I realized I didn’t feel like paying a monthly fee to continue playing a game, so I stopped. Ah, what a very different time in my life…

  3. TheAngriestHobo says:

    The whole naming issue was a huge problem in COH too. I remember sitting there trying to name my very first character (a tech-centric villain). Literally EVERYTHING even marginally related to my powerset was taken. Forty-five minutes later, I stuck in an obvious typo just to be able to actually play the game, and Mister Resister was born.

    There is nothing worse to a grammar nazi than being forced to make a spelling mistake. I had trouble forgiving Paragon for that.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      MMOs should have fixed this near the start, either tacking on a number of finding some other way to allow the same names. A few do, and hurrah, but I know I usually spend ten minutes trying to find something that’s not already been taken.

    • hemmer says:

      The Guild Wars games allow people to use the space bar when naming characters, which I found to be a very simple and elegant solution.

      Not that it prevents Déàthkîll0r and his friends from buggering about but that probably wasn’t on the table to begin with.

  4. Robomonk says:

    Such a shame that Champions Online has fallen to its current form. I remembered that I had loads of fun with a group I met. However, with the introduction of the new crafting and the need to pay monthly subs just to have “Freeform” characters – made it unplayable for me.

    It’s not the monthly subs that bothered me so much. If they had some kind of content that isn’t so repetitive, it would have made things better.

    Still one of the better character creators I’ve experienced (if you don’t include those super detailed ones on some of the Korean MMOs).

  5. Masked Dave says:

    I know the PC version was crap and not an RPG so wouldn’t count for this column, but the Spider-Man 2 and Ultimate Spider-Man games were both great games for letting you *be* Spider-Man, even if the sandbox world got a bit repetitive.

    I remember hearing good things about the Wolverine game some years ago, but never got around to it myself.

  6. Flamepreacher says:

    “I still miss City of Heroes though. You never forget your first rooftop.”

    So true, vanilla CoH was probably where I met most of the people who populate my friends list to this day. It got a lot right especially in the earlier days, I still wish current MMO’s would implement a version of the sidekicking system.

    I’ll never forget just how much I enjoyed just logging in and flying over Atlas Park

  7. FifthSurprise says:

    And here I am missing Superhero League of Hoboken…

    • xcopy says:

      Exactly my thoughts! Very funny game and unique mixture of RPG and adventure game. There werde some crazy enemies. Got stuck where the tiger was trapped under the liberty bell.
      What about choose-your-own-adventure books? Are there any good superhero versions?

  8. ramshackabooba says:

    Freedom Force is not an RPG??? It (and its sequel) are two of my favorite RPGs, why do you say it’s not an RPG?

    • Premium User Badge

      Qazinsky says:

      He’s most probably making a nod to that most ancient of questions that have plagued humanity since time immemorial: What makes a game an RPG?

      It’s usually followed by the retort: But game X is not an RPG!.

      • Phasma Felis says:

        The basic problem is that “role-playing games” have involved no roleplaying whatsoever until quite recently, and indeed most of them still don’t. What the phrase actually means is “video game which resembles Dungeons & Dragons,” or more recently “video game which resembles other video games which resemble Dungeons & Dragons.”

        • Haldurson says:

          Paper and Pencil Role Playing games didn’t always include actual role playing either, other than in our heads. I was young when D&D first came out, and I remember being completely clueless when I was dragged into some game at a science fiction convention by older people. While the game certainly encourages role play, it in no way requires it.

          And part of that is that D&D was adapted in part from a miniatures game, “Chainmail”, if I’m remembering correctly. Miniatures certainly don’t imply any kind of roleplay, and in fact, you CAN play a paper and pencil game as if you are playing with miniatures, without regard to any of the ‘pretend’ aspects. The roleplay is certainly intentional and encouraged, but it is in no way a requirement.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Same reasons that XCOM and Syndicate and Marvel Heroes aren’t RPGs.

    • kshriner says:

      I also really enjoyed Freedom Force (both!). Funny, destructible environments, good villains, fun power/level ups. Wish we could get some more or similar! I’d buy it. :)

  9. Zankman says:

    What about X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance?

  10. Arathain says:

    Ahh, is it time for my twice yearly rant about City of Heroes again? Lovely.

    It’s a strange dead end in online game development. It solved a whole bunch of problems with the MMO genre before there were enough MMOs to even be a proper genre, and most of its solutions were entirely ignored by everyone else since.

    The sidekick/mentor system allowing anyone to play with their friends regardless of level. Selectable difficulty on missions, which would scale with the size of your team. No strictly defined tank/healer/DPS trinity, and supports whose buffs and debuffs were more powerful than healing. Inspirations. Giant monsters that everyone can fight. A flexible power system meaning two characters with the same power sets can have different abilities.

    It’s very odd watching so many MMOs struggle with how to let you play with your friends. Most simply don’t bother. The closest to doing anything is Guild Wars 2, and that system seems restrictive and clumsy compared to CoH.

    Two things must be true. No MMO designer ever played CoH. All the designers who previously worked for Cryptic/Paragon were roundly ignored.

    Also, a special shout out to Paragon Studios for really excellent community engagement. They were great about listening to what the community wanted, and fixing their problems, often in unexpected and clever ways.

  11. Koozer says:

    I don’t understand the lack of enthusiasm for Champions Online, to me it offered everything City of Heroes did (I played Champions pre-F2P). Maybe it had a different variety of powers, but it did other things marvelously. For one your character name could be anything you bloody well wanted, the world was varied and interesting, and the graphical presentation was just perfect.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Its main problem was being a solid base that never really went anywhere, whereas City of Heroes continued to try and improve itself. It was fun for a month or so, and it has some stuff I really like, like the Nemesis system, but after a while it was all just ‘done’. And while I know the original game is popular, its superhero universe didn’t really catch my attention. Foxbat was funny, but otherwise I can’t think of anyone memorable, whereas City of Heroes had really memorable characters and factions. It’s just so *bland* most of the time, with only occasional bursts of cool superheroing, and far too long spent in most of the locations for them to stay interesting.

      • malkav11 says:

        Champions Online was handicapped by having licensed the Champions tabletop roleplaying game, I suspect. It’s a cool system for designing your characters in tabletop play but it didn’t really translate into the MMO format. Meanwhile that sticks them with the Champions setting, which is IMHO pretty dull and uninspired.

  12. Haldurson says:

    I loved City of Heroes, and then loved City of Villains even more. Yes, there were a lot of boring, repetitive missions, but as the game matured, the devs got the message and started doing some incredible hand-made stuff. The Ernesto Hess task force, to this day, I think was the most incredible ‘adventure’ in any MMO to date, superhero or otherwise. It was so good, and so surprising that I made it my mission to bring everyone I knew to experience it, and I’d never explain anything because the surprises in it were what made it so great.

    That’s one thing that I think that all other MMOs could learn from — the joy of being surprised. Nowadays, if you do a raid in just about any MMO, you have to either read on-line spoilers and time everything perfectly and basically work by a formula. Or you need to bring a ‘general’ who barks orders. That’s not my idea of fun. CoH may not have been perfect, but it broke the MMO mold in all the best ways.

    As far as action rpgs are concerned, I tried both the Marvel and DC games after CoX disappeared. But like most action rpgs, they give me a brief bit of fun, and then I’m bored.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      The Weston Phipps stuff was remarkable just in terms of content.

      • Haldurson says:

        I don’t remember him, but yeah, some of the stuff they added later on was amazing. I don’t think anyone knew what they were doing early on as far as designing compelling quests and task forces. But eventually they got the message and things got lots better.

        The first evidence that I saw that they were going in the right direction, was a mission in The Hollows (I think???) where they had covered the walls and floors and staircases with ice that you could actually slide around on. IT wasn’t much, but it was fun and it was different, and it was a nice break from the generic quests. Also one of the respec quests was awesome (I think it was on the hero side). You know you have a good quest when people are just doing it for fun.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          Yeah, Frostfire, with his ice ramps. He was awesome.

          Phipps was in CoV – basically pretending to be a charity worker and saviour of a neighbourhood, while actually having you do things like get rid of a teacher genuinely trying to do good. His quests were so dark, so cynical and so unpleasant that players of a game called “City of Villains” actually *complained*.

          Early quests were really bad, but by the end they were jazzing it up a lot with proper plot arcs, better pathing, and of course player generated content that could at least wrap things in fun premises even if they were just using fairly generic components.

  13. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Batman on NES! Oh man I loved that game. Lent it to a friend at it got stolen in a burglary at their house. When they bought me a replacement with the insurance it was some chappy sequel thing. So sad. Forgot all about that, thanks RPS!

  14. bill says:

    Not RPGs, but Spiderman 2 and Hulk: Ultimate Destruction were both awesome super hero games.

    I suspect one reason that superhero RPGs have, by and large, failed is that superheroes have a lot of elements that don’t really fit with RPGs.
    Though I’m sure someone could make a pretty good multiplayer Avengers RPG with current tech.

    A single player action game is probably a lot easier for most heroes… except super overpowered ones line superman

    • Haldurson says:

      I agree that the superhero genre has some aspects that don’t fit with rpgs. One of the unique things about CoH, at least at first, is that loot was deemphasized, as compared with typical rpgs and MMOs. It just doesn’t feel right for a superhero to loot the bodies of their fallen foes for anything other than evidence or clues. While most people do seem to like getting loot, especially in MMOs, I felt that CoH and CoV’s move to add more loot later on, possibly in response to the more traditional MMO fans, was in some ways, a mistake. Don’t get me wrong — I thought that their marketplace and crafting was kinda fun, but also hurt immersion.

  15. Blutsuechtiger says:

    I (still) play Marvel heroes 2016 and I’m with it since the beginning. A month ago my wife started too and ~once a week we run around and bash some minions in Midtown.

    One thing I absolutely miss (and somehow hate Gaz for it) is a correct PvP part in it. With a little creativity there are tons of awesome options….but Gaz is not using a single (braincell) one. The one PvP Thing is still in “Beta”(SHAME-ON-YOU!) and I was only in the beginning able to enjoy it several times (still have those PvP Marks, guess that makes me somehow unique & special.

    So IMHO, to make Marvel heroes funky for endgame, they really should overhaul the PvP part and bring something for it.

  16. montfalcon says:

    Just stopping by to second the recommendation for DC Universe Online. It was a fun diversion that, while not quite capturing the magic of CoH, managed to scratch some of the itch, while also pulling out reams of continuity jokes, iconic characters and heaps of lore.
    I also have had similar trouble with account woes though, being passed back and forth between WB and ProSieben and Daybreak in the most disheartening of exchanges. One of the poorest handovers I have ever had the displeasure to experience.

  17. greener says:

    Good grief. I wouldn’t say the superhero curse is broken. I’d say the genre is dead and buried.

    CoH was great at launch. Later changes were a mixed bag. I still miss it though.

    DCUO is good at the lower levels. But higher up it’s quite a grind. Combat is also very prescribed for most powersets and there’s the dreaded animation cancelling. Well some people find it clever and fun. I don’t. Not sure how their CS is now but when they were still with Sony it was shocking.

    Marvel Heroes is good for what it is. You’re not playing your own hero and it’s a speedy slaughterfest of mindlessly blicking masses of mobs. Can be entertaining for a little while.

    Champions is such a sad story. They sold off their share of CoH to buy the Champions IP which few had ever heard of and just saddled them with a convoluted and annoying stat system. That has changed to be slightly less annoying but it’s still there. I went back to try it again recently but their F2P restricts you to preset classes and powers. I can’t use any of my old characters and to make a new one with open power selection – the game’s biggest selling point – would cost me $50. So…. I didn’t stick around long. And yeah it seemed pretty dead.

    Maybe City of Titans will be finished one day and actually good. Or maybe City of Heroes will be revived. Or maybe something new will come along. But for the moment there’s just nothing.